"While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote." ~ Mason Cooley

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beastly Things ~ by Donna Leon

If you've read any of my other postings, you know I enjoy mysteries.  Not just any mysteries, however. For the most part, I prefer those written by a handful of European and Canadian authors. And one of  my  favorites is Donna Leon.

I recently was pleased to read a review of her work in which Leon is described as a literary crime novelist.  The label elevates her beyond the stereotypical image of a mystery writer.  And rightly so -no mere whodunits here, no simple formulaic plots, or two-dimensional characters. No red herrings. Leon's protagonist, Guido Brunetti, is a compassionate, ethical, and intelligent man whose complex personality has been developed over this series that now numbers 20 novels.  Developed not only in Leon's rich and layered descriptions of his thinking and behavior over time, but through his relationships with the cast of multi-dimensional supporting characters that populate the series.

The label is also appropriate because Leon is a talented and skillful writer.  Her metaphors are striking, her sense of humor delightful, her descriptions of Venice, whether of the city itself, its history, culture, or politics, intriguing.  Were the subject not crime, she most certainly would be found on fiction shelves, not mystery.

But what I most appreciate about Leon is her expectation that her readers are curious, intelligent and open to new information and attitudes. Both Guido and his wife, Paola, are inveterate readers - Guido, an aficionado of classic Greek and Roman historians and Paola, a professor of English literature who loves Henry James. 

Additionally, each of the novels explores a social and/or environmental issue - issues that impact not only Italy,  but, it could be argued, other nations as well- pollution, illegal immigration, racism, child prostitution, political corruption, etc., etc. In Beastly Things the issue is graft, corruption, and unhealthy practices in a slaughterhouse...and the consequences.  Although Leon has definite opinions, she manages to present them in the context of the story line.  Heads up - the description of the slaughterhouse practices may be enough to make a vegetarian of any reader!

If you have read Leon in the past, but haven't kept up, you can jump in here.  If you have never read her,  I recommend you start at the beginning of the series with Death at La Fenice and get a proper introduction to Guido Brunetti,  his family and colleagues, and the remarkable city of Venice.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon B. Kopp

"Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again...."'
Sheldon B. Kopp

A few months ago while culling my bookshelves for a library donation, I decided to devote one shelf to the non-fiction books that have inspired me most over the years, books I've reread and cherish and couldn't donate anyway  because they're underlined, highlighted, and contain questions and a few expletives. 

The first book I selected was If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients by Sheldon Kopp, psychotherapist and author.  I first read it in l978 (it was published in l972).  Still struggling with the aftermath of a painful divorce, I was weary of my whining and decided that it was time to quit the pity party.  I began reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. If you were around in the 70's, you know that was a slew of books.  Of all of them, only Kopp's book and The New Diary, by Tristine Rainer, remain on my shelf.

I have to admit that I struggled with The Buddha when I first read it.  Although Kopp's message of personal responsibility was exactly what I needed, he was uncompromising in his delivery.  "Using the myths of Gilgamesh, Siddhartha, The Wife of Bath, Don Quixote...the works of Buber, Ginsberg, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dante, and Jung" and concluding with personal stories, Kopp demanded that his reader be literate, reflective, and willing to surrender all excuses, reasons and alibis, any expectation that someone else has the answers, including him.  He presented himself, not as an expert, but a fellow pilgrim, another struggling human being.  

I almost quit the book...and would have missed what has proven to be the most impactful (and most quoted ) part of the book - an Eschatological Laundry List - a list of 43 statements at the end of the book that encapsulate Kopp's philosophy and continue to date to be quoted.  A few of these "eternal truths" that have meant the most to me...and continue to do so....
  • The world is not necessarily just.  Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
  • You have a responsibility to do your best anyway.
  • It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
  • All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
  • But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own-take-care-of-yourself-cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown up.
  • And...yes....learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again.
I have reread this book three times over the past 35 years, most recently within the last week.  And I still value and cherish it.  Obviously, it is dated in some of the vocabulary, examples and references- l972 right?!  This may turn off younger readers, but the message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.  Wisdom isn't easily dated.

It is important to note that Kopp wrote with a deep understanding of and appreciation for the courage and strength required to  "give up the master, without giving up the search." He lived with a brain tumor that doctors could not completely remove,  and each recurring operation over the remainder of his life left him increasingly impaired.  He wrote about this challenge in An End to Innocence: Facing Life without Illusions, published in l978.  He continued to write,  his final book a collection of daily meditations, The Blues Ain't Nothing but a Good Soul Feeling Bad, published in l992.  Sheldon Kopp died in l999.

And If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him is back on my shelf.

Friday, March 7, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

It's been some time since I've posted, not because I haven't been reading - I have. Mysteries and e-books about minimalism and habit formation.  And I've started a couple that I haven't finished.  (One of the resolutions I made a few years ago was to abandon any book that didn't engage me within 50 pages, no matter how great the critical reviews.)  In short, haven't posted because I haven't had much to say.

Then, I read our book club's February selection, And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel by Khaled Hosseini,  author of  The Kite Runner.  Not having read that, and truthfully, not inspired to, I only read this selection out of commitment to the book club and my past experiences of pleasant surprise when I did.  Once again, I've been thankful that I followed through.

And the Mountains Echoed is a treasure, a complex and compassionate story woven by a master storyteller, one of my favorite pieces of fiction from the past few years.  It has a tapestry of themes - loyalty, family, filial love, survival, interconnection, acceptance...woven through the lives of a series of fully fleshed individuals across continents and generations.  (Reminded me a bit of a classic Russian novel where it helped to keep an accounting of the various characters and how they relate to one another, or as I did when a student, to give them nicknames.)

I recommend you check out a variety of reviews of this book.  You will see a wide divergence of opinions and several synopsis of the story line.  For my part, this is what I most enjoyed -

  • the lyrical beauty of Hosseini's writing
  • the humanity of his characters
  • and the intricate relationships between them,
  • his sensitive rendering of cultural differences
  • his ability to deliver historical, cultural information without preachi
  • the intricate, multi-leveled story
And - I'm starting The Kite Runner tonight.